The Boston Symphony Orchestra program Thursday evening at Symphony Hall featured some Beethoven, some Ibsen, some Grieg, some Goethe—even a little bit of Freud.
But the evening belonged to Camilla Tilling. The versatile Swedish soprano, fast becoming a BSO favorite, with half-a-dozen appearances since her 2012 debut with the orchestra, sang works ranging from tender to comic to heroic in a captivating display of range.
Incidental music by Beethoven (the complete Egmont) and by Grieg (selections from “Peer Gynt”), the latter staged by director Bill Barclay, created a theatrical atmosphere in the hall.
Hearing the complete Egmont was like hearing newly discovered Beethoven. The overture alone is performed often enough; the complete incidental music, comprising entr’actes and two song selections, hardly at all.
Associate conductor Ken-David Masur led the orchestra, and his assured, insightful work on the podium furthered the notion that soon he will be leading a major ensemble.
Goethe’s noble tale of Egmont, the 16th century Dutch martyr whose death led eventually to that country’s liberation from Spain, has long gone unperformed. Beethoven’s overture, heroic and bracing, keeps the great German’s drama alive.
The instrumental entr’actes—highlighted by the Larghetto introducing the death scene of Klärchen, Egmont’s beloved—each have distinctive character. But it was Tilling, realizing two vastly different songs from the drama—“Die Trommel gerühret” and “Freudvoll und leidvoll,” who recreated the power of Beethoven’s settings.
The characterful “Die Trommel” (Roll the Drum)—uncomfortably comic now, with its dated praise of a man in uniform (“what a joy it is to be a man,” she sings) had a purposeful air, but “Freudvoll und leidvoll” (Joyful and sorrowful) had real power, and musical complexity that mirrored the sentiment of the lyrics.
A complex staging of “Peer Gynt”—thankfully condensed from Ibsen’s drama, and further condensed from Grieg’s extensive musical score—was cleverly achieved by Barclay. His similar work staging last year’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” had great appeal, and this production, although it took some adjusting to, was equally compelling.
A hectic start, with the front of the stage full of costumes, strange props and lots of noise, detracted from the instrumental ensemble. It was perhaps a symbol of the hectic antics of Gynt, the wandering boy who follows his “self”—Freud alert—in various peripatetic larks.
It got better, quickly. Caleb Mayo starred as Gynt, and a solid cast of actors brought Barclay’s libretto to life.
There wasn’t much Ibsen left after Barclay got through crafting his rhyming couplet narrative. It sounded half Shakespearean, half millennial stand-up. But it worked, weaving humor and, amazingly, coherence into the ungainly story (which Ibsen calculated would take five hours to stage).
Grieg’s familiar suites, extracted from the complete music, providing aural touchstones. Tilling sang and acted Solveig, and her haunting aria (“Solveig’s Song”) pierced the chaos.
Many aspects of this production appealed. The Symphony Hall sound system, put to the high-decibel test by the formless Boyg, took on a character of its own. The lighting (Karen Perlow)—especially the ubiquitous red of the bedlam murder scene—was spectacular.
Most impressive was the choreography, directed by Nicole Pierce—lots of organized confusion, with property shifts being blended into the narrow front-of-stage, along with dancing, fighting, love-making and birthing.
The BSO has made a point of renewing its commitment to opera in the recent past, with great results. A continued commitment to semi-staging incident theatre music—and to the work of the inventive Barclay—should continue as well.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs “Peer Gynt” on Friday evening, and repeats performances of the Egmont incidental music along with “Peer Gynt” on Saturday and Tuesday evenings. 888-266-1200; bso.org